The GDAL / OGR tools are an open source, cross platform, command-line toolkit that can be used for viewing GIS metadata, performing attribute queries, and converting file formats, among other things. It can also be used for transforming coordinate systems and projections for GIS files. I’ll demonstrate in this brief tutorial how to accomplish this using the OGR tools, which are for vector based GIS. The raster based GDAL tools work in a similar fashion.
Viewing basic coordinate system / projection info:
ogrinfo -al -so world_wgs.shp
Where ogrinfo is the name of the tool, -al is a switch to get detailed info about the layer, -so is a switch to display summary info, and world_wgs.ship is the name of our file. Run that command and we’ll get something that looks like this, with info about the features, coordinate system, and attribute fields of our shapefile:
INFO: Open of `world_wgs.shp’
using driver `ESRI Shapefile’ successful.
Layer name: world_wgs
Feature Count: 243
Extent: (-179.808664, -89.677397) – (179.808664, 83.435942)
Layer SRS WKT:
CNTRY_NAME: String (254.0)
FIPS_CNT_1: String (254.0)
ISO_2DIGIT: String (254.0)
ISO_3DIGIT: String (254.0)
STATUS: String (254.0)
COLORMAP: Real (18.6)
CONTINENT: String (254.0)
UN_CONTINE: String (254.0)
REGION: String (254.0)
UN_REGION: String (254.0)
Convert coordinate systems supported by EPSG
GDAL / OGR and most of the open source GIS software supports projections and coordinate systems that are part of the EPSG library. If you want to do a conversion between two coordinate systems and they are both supported by EPSG, you just have to reference the EPSG code that’s used to identity the system that you want to project to. You can look up codes using spatialreference.org.
Let’s say we want to convert our shapefile that’s in WGS 84 (common lat and long) to NAD 83 (used frequently in North America):
ogr2ogr -t_srs EPSG:4269 world_new.shp world_wgs.shp
Where ogr2ogr is the name of the tool, -t_srs is the command for transforming from one coordinate system to the other, EPSG:4269 is the code that identifies the coordinate system we want the new file to have – NAD83, world_new.shp is the name of the output file that will have the new projection that we want, and world_wgs.shp is our input file. If you run the command and get no error message, you’re in good shape. Just run the ogrinfo command on the new file to verify that it’s been re-projected.
Convert coordinate system not supported by EPSG
The EPSG library is extensive, but doesn’t contain everything, particularly some global and continental map projections. GDAL / OGR can still do the job, but you’ll have to provide the tool with the proper frame of reference since the EPSG library doesn’t have the info. Let’s say we want to project our WGS file to the Robinson Projection, which is not part of EPSG.
First, go back to spatialreference.org and search for Robinson. Its ID code is ESRI 54030 – not part of the EPSG library. Click on the link for the projection to open its window. You’ll be able to look at the projection data in a number of standard file formats. Select OGC_WKT from the list, and it will open the text in a new window, showing you the parameters of that projection. In your browser, go up to file, save as, and save the file as robinson_ogcwkt.txt in the same directory as the shapefile you want to reproject.
Now that you have the projection info stored in the text file, run the following command to make the conversion:
ogr2ogr -t_srs robisnon_ogcwkt.txt world_rob.shp world_wgs.shp
It’s the same command as our previous one, except that you’re referencing the text file with your data instead of an EPSG code.
Define an undefined coordinate system
If you run the ogrinfo command and your coordinate system is undefined, you should define it before doing anything else, and you must define an undefined projection before converting to another projection. Look at the metadata that came with you file or go back to the source to figure out what it is. For example the US Census Bureau Generalized Cartographic Boundary Files for 2000 are in NAD83 according to their metadata, but the files lack a projection definition.
To define one, use the following command:
ogr2ogr -a_srs EPSG:4269 states_nad83.shp states_unknown.shp
The only difference here is the -a_srs command is used to assign a coordinate system to a file – the rest of the parameters are the same. If you’re defining a non-EPSG projection, use the same method from the previous example – download a definition file from spatialreference.org and use the file name in place of the EPSG code.
More help and where to download:
UC Santa Barbara NCEAS and the UC Davis Soil Lab both have short tutorials and sample commands of GDAL / OGR.
If you want to thumb through the world’s map projections, the folks at radicalcartography have a nice projection reference page with visuals and brief descriptions.
Visit the GDAL / OGR page for downloading, or if you’re a Windows or Mac user, you can download QGIS and GDAL / OGR together from the QGIS download page. Linux users can get GDAL / OGR via your package handler – depending on your distro, you may have it already.